Pressing the monetary button

December 3, 2015 10:02 AM

More breaking news – this time on the investment side: central banks are casinos. They print money as if they were manufacturing endless numbers of chips that they’ll never have to redeem. Actually a casino is an apt description for today’s global monetary policy. There is a well-known “foolproof” system in gambling circles that is sophisticatedly called the “Martingale." I used to call it “double up to catch up” at my fraternity’s poker table where I was consistently frustrated (loser) – not because I used Martingale, but because I wasn’t a good bluffer.

Today’s central bankers use both tactics to their success – at least for now. They bluff, or at least convince investors that they will keep interest rates low for extended periods of time and if that fails, they use Quantitative Easing with a Martingale flavor. Martingale theorizes that if you lose one bet, you just double the next one to get back to even, but if you lose that one you do it again and again until you win. Given an endless pool of “chips," the theory is nearly mathematically certain to succeed, and in today’s global monetary system, central bankers are doing just that.

Japan for years has doubled down on its QE and Mario Draghi’s statement of several years past, “Whatever it takes” – is a Martingale promise in disguise. It vows to get the euroland economy back to “even” and inflation up to 2% by increasing QE and the collateral it buys until the euro currency declines, the EZ economy improves, and inflation approaches target. Currently the ECB buys nearly €55 billion a month, and this Thursday they will up the ante – Martingale or bust!

How long can this keep going on? Well, theoretically as long as there are financial assets (including stocks) to buy. Practically the limit is really the value of the central bank’s base currency. If investors lose faith in a reasonable range for a country’s currency, then inflation will quickly hit targets and then some. Venezuela, Argentina, and Zimbabwe are modern day examples. Germany’s Weimar Republic is a great historical one.

Theoretically, if the whole developed global economy did this at the same relative pace and stopped at the right time, they could successfully reflate and produce a little bit of inflation and a little bit of growth and save the globe from the dreaded throes of deflation. That is what they are trying to do – Quantitative Easing, Martingale style – and so far, so good, I guess – although no rational observer would call these post Lehman efforts a success.

That they haven’t really succeeded is a testament to what I and others have theorized for some time. Martingale QE’s and resultant artificially low interest rates carry distinctive white blood cells,not oxygenated red ones, as they wind their way through the economy’s corpus: they keep alive zombie corporations that are unproductive; they destroy business models such as insurance companies and pension funds because yields are too low to pay promised benefits; they turn savers into financial eunuchs, unable to reproduce and grow their retirement funds to maintain expected future lifestyles. More sophisticated economists such as Kenneth Rogoff and Carmen Reinhart label this “financial repression." Euthanasia of the saver is the result if it continues too long.

But this is theorizing much like Schrödinger’s cat. How many people care about the existence of a quantum feline? (A few, thankfully, but not many.) Market observers say “show me the money” and when they look inside the box, they want to see some, so let’s get down to business.

How does all this play out? Timing is the key because as gamblers know there isn’t an endless stream of Martingale chips – even for central bankers acting in unison. One day the negative feedback loop on the real economy will halt the ascent of stock and bond prices and investors will look around like Wile E. Coyote wondering how far is down. But when? When does Martingale meet its inevitable fate? I really don’t know; I’m just certain it will. Doesn’t help you much, does it?

Except to argue that much like time is relative to the speed of light, the faster and faster central bankers press the monetary button, the greater and greater the relative risk of owning financial assets. I would gradually de-risk portfolios as we move into 2016. Less credit risk, reduced equity exposure, placing more emphasis on the return of your money than a double digit return on your money. Even Martingale casinos eventually fail. They may not run out of chips but like Atlantic City, the gamblers eventually go home, and their doors close.
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